It’s no secret by now that we’re fans of Wine Spectator, so when we heard from the editor of our now dog-eared cheese issue (Sept. 30, 2008), we jumped at the chance to ask him a few questions. After all, short of penning a weekly cheese column for the New York Times, overseeing the cheese coverage at one of the nation’s most revered wine publications is probably our mutual dream job. Owen Dugan, features editor at the Wine Spectator, had the enviable, if daunting, task of compiling the “100 Great Cheeses” list last year. While he was understandably coy about what he’s sampled lately, here are some behind-the-scenes details of how he assembled the list.

Q. How many cheeses did you taste, and over how long a time period?

A. That’s the No. 1 question and is difficult to answer. Let me conflate a couple of your questions. I was in charge of selection and procurement for the final in-office tastings, but had significant help from contributing editor Sam Gugino and several editors on staff here. We are all eating and tasting cheese constantly, for pleasure and for work (it gets blurry sometimes), and brought these experiences to bear on selection. So the answer to “how many” is hundreds. Many of those in the field, during the year, and not necessarily tasted with this issue in mind. But none was included without being re-tasted and evaluated by Sam and me in the office. Both of us wrote tasting notes and scores to make sure we were in agreement. The in-office tastings probably numbered 200 cheeses, tasted as categories.

So for Cheddars, for example, we used our tastings from a story Sam did a couple of years ago to help us select, and also asked around and trawled local and online sources, and re-tasted all together. Some old favorites did not make it in; some new favorites were discovered along the way.

Q. Did you aim for a variety of cheeses (origin, milk, age, etc.) or did you just see how the chips fell, so to speak?

A. Yes, we did aim for variety, as I think we explained in the introduction. The No. 1 criterion for inclusion was quality above all. But that said, we also wanted the list to be representative of the market, and of where quality is found. You could easily do 100 Best American Cheeses, or French. We chose international, and so were careful to find examples of marketplace stalwarts and iconic cheeses when possible, but also the best examples of the recent proliferation of really great cheese, and not just in the U.S. The numbers were crunched in every imaginable way, but in the end there were very few cases of ‘We need one more x-milk cheese,’ or ‘Why so few wines from y?’ (A lot of this is explained on page 62, under the heading How We Taste.)

Q. You stated in the magazine that one of the criteria used was the cheese’s affinity for wine. Were there any cheeses you sampled that stumped you on a wine pairing?

A. Do I have to answer that? Um. I would turn it around and say that I am one of those people who does not usually like red table wine with cheese. In the few cases where we recommend those wines with the cheese it might mean that I have no better alternative, though my fallback in such cases is to match to texture.

Q. We imagine that for every cheese you included, you must have heard from several other producers wondering why their cheeses didn’t make the cut. Is that accurate?

A. We have fielded a number of questions from producers, importers, readers, and retailers about general and specific exclusions. Truly, though, complaints have been few. Putting together such a list is difficult, but also does focus one’s priorities. Early on 100 seemed too many; now it seems too few. But I think the list is fairly inclusive and does right by both archetypes and newcomers. No cheese got in by reputation alone, nor did anyone get in on novelty. The criteria were weighted slightly, with the goal of giving a fairly knowledgeable and curious cheese and wine lover something to take to market to find even better examples of their favorites and also to broaden their experience. I think people understand that, even if their favorite is not on the list. Let me also say that a couple of my very favorites are not on. In one case production is low and the season short. In another, well, as Procrustes knew, sacrifices must be made.

Q. What was the reaction from your readers?

A. Mostly very positive. It was on track to break the record for newsstand sales, but I do not know if it did ultimately. A couple of stores made little flags reading “Wine Spectator Top 100” to stick in cheeses. You’re the only ones who have taken on the job of evaluating our work so thoroughly, though. Be thankful you have more than a few months at your disposal, and do not find yourself tasting 30 Pecorinos at 9 in the morning.

Q. Have any new cheeses caught your eye since the list was published?

A. Yes. Let’s see if they show up in the magazine.

Q. Will there be a 2009 list?

A. I don’t believe so, but Sam will write regularly on cheese this year.

Q. What would we find in your cheese drawer right now?

A. A half-bottle of German Riesling TBA and … I’ll never tell.

Our thanks to Owen for subjecting to our inquisition ~ and we’ll be reading Wine Spectator to see what they suggest pairing with that German Riesling!

Editors’ Note: If you haven’t already, you can order a copy of the Sept. 30, 2008, “100 Great Cheeses” issue, or access it online if you’re a Wine Spectator subscriber, to follow along and read Owen & Sam’s reviews and suggested pairings.

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